Alone Time

William Gladstone served as a British statesman for over 60 years. For 12 of those years, he was their prime minister, the most of any person. He supported equality of opportunity in a very status-conscious nation. He was opposed to trade monopolies which kept many goods unaffordable. He was fondly referred to as the People’s William.

Unlike many who are in public life, he valued his time being alone. He took long walks, often climbing steep hills. There was no entourage with him on these walks because he preferred being alone. He needed this solitude to think anew and to gain perspective on the major issues of the British Commonwealth at the time.

But the alone time he was most famous for was chopping down trees. These were trees that were dead or dying and were affecting the growth of other trees. This wasn’t a casual effort. Some trees were up to 16 feet in diameter. The effort was physically exhausting, but it helped clear his mind. He continued his tree chopping into his late 80s.

The chips from his choppings were collector’s items, which the children sold to provide money to charities. His physical labor endeared him to the people he served.

Few leadership programs focus on the value of alone time. Alone time, however, is a surprisingly common trait of many of our greatest leaders. Abraham Lincoln cultivated alone time. John Kennedy sought to be alone as his advisors quarreled about the response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Bill Gates takes time each year to be by himself. Many other examples could be cited.

Spending time alone has been called the school of genius. But alone time needs to have a purpose.

Think about how different it is today to find alone time. Technology rarely leaves us alone. For many, being with others is thought to be productive time. Meetings, phone calls, and work sessions are where we conceive of work being done. But is that really the case?

All of us can recall some of our best ideas coming from taking a shower, walking a dog, cleaning dishes, or the moments before we drift off to sleep. Those are small moments of time. Imagine what more we could do if we increased our time alone to just think.

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“A crowded world thinks that aloneness is always loneliness and that to seek it is perversion.” – John Graves (author)

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